THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — Todd Gurley roots for running backs when he watches football. A playoff duel between arguably the two best ball-carriers in the NFL would be irresistible to him as a fan.
Gurley won’t be watching the Los Angeles Rams’ playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys from his couch, however. He’ll be in the Coliseum on Saturday night to go up against Ezekiel Elliott in a tantalizing matchup that should play a large role in deciding which team moves on to the NFC championship game.
“It’s not really about us,” Gurley said Wednesday night. “It’s a team game. Obviously, we’ve got to hype it up, Zeke versus Gurley, but it’ll be a good game. He’s a great back, and I guess I’m not too bad myself.”
The good feelings are mutual between these elite running backs when the Cowboys (11-6) visit the Rams (13-3). Gurley and Elliott are friends who realize they have a remarkably similar style of play, adding an extra bit of intrigue to an already compelling matchup.
“He’s a big, fast back,” Elliott said about Gurley. “He can run inside. He can run outside. He can run through you, jump over you, around you, make you miss. He’s a great asset out of the backfield. Just a guy who has a well-rounded game and really doesn’t have any weaknesses.”
Indeed, no backs in the league exemplify the current ideal combination of power, speed and versatility better than Gurley or Elliott, who have established themselves as destroyers of defenses behind two of the league’s best offensive lines.
Gurley and Elliott are dangerous as ball-carriers and as pass-catchers. They’re the centerpieces of their respective offenses, with Elliott’s 381 touches leading the NFL and Gurley ranking fourth with 315 touches after sitting out the Rams’ past two games with a knee injury that appears to be healing well.
Although they’ve played only seven combined NFL seasons, they’ve already compiled individual accolades to back up their stature. Elliott won the NFL rushing title last month for the second time, while Gurley led the league in touchdowns and finished third in the rushing race this season after winning the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year award last season.
“He has everything you want in a running back,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said of Gurley. “He’s quick, he’s fast, he’s explosive, he’s strong, has great instincts for the game, great feel for the game, outstanding vision. He can beat you with speed. He can beat you with power. He can beat you cutting back. He can beat you when they hand him the ball. He can beat you when they throw him the ball. He’s great running after the catch. He plays with a competitive spirit. He’s just a fantastic player.”
Garrett then realized he knows another back with very similar qualities.
“In some ways, I probably did describe Ezekiel Elliott,” he said. “Both big-time players who can do everything you want them to do on the field and embrace carrying the burden for their team.”
Their skills aren’t limited to taking handoffs, either.
Elliott was also the Cowboys’ leading receiver this season with 77 catches for 567 yards. He has touched the ball at least 20 times in each of his past nine games.
Gurley made 59 catches for 580 yards this season, his numbers declining only slightly after Sean McVay turned him into a huge target in the Rams’ passing game last year. Gurley played a role of increased sophistication, lining up in new spots and learning new skills in McVay’s innovative schemes.
Elliott and his offensive line are particularly daunting challenges for the Rams’ defense, which yielded 5.1 yards per rush this season — worst in the NFL.
“It’s a big challenge to stop their running game, especially (Elliott),” Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “But all our guys know that, so that’s a challenge. We’ve challenged our guys with, ‘Hey, we can’t let him run the ball, or certainly run wild on us.'”
Gurley hasn’t played in four weeks after taking the final two regular-season games off to rest his balky knee. He is easing back into practice this week, with the Rams trying to keep him fresh for the challenge presented by a Cowboys run defense that held backs to 3.8 yards per carry, fifth-best in the league.
Gurley doesn’t look at Saturday as a personal competition with Elliott — but if he did, he would have plenty of motivation.
While Elliott won the NFL rushing title as a rookie in 2016 and again this year, Gurley has yet to claim the title. Elliott also earned his first playoff victory last week, rushing for 137 yards against Seattle, while Gurley is still looking for his first postseason win.
“He’s a big back, like myself,” Gurley said. “Basically fast, strong, catches the ball. He goes out there and proves it every week. He gets it done.”
AP Pro Football Writer Schuyler Dixon in Frisco, Texas, contributed to this report.
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